How to Panic
I couldn’t believe it. He was back, again. It was the man’s third time in the store today, and something like the fifteenth time this week.
He slipped in through the sliding glass doors as if stunned that the automatic sensors would still register for his palsied, atrophied frame. I even heard him bawk like a chicken – once, sharply; surprised, clueless. He stared at the open doors with confusion, and only moved inside when they started to close again.
“Have you seen this guy?” I said to Madalyn. She was working check-out.
“I’ve seen him around,” said Madalyn. “He’s street. Comes in here a lot though, doesn’t he? That’s kind of weird.”
“He not only comes. He BUYS.”
“What does he buy?” asked Madalyn.
“Watch,” I said.
The man was tall and thin – but whispery, like a suit of clothes without a body. He wore brown knee socks, a camouflage t-shirt and shorts, and bright orange wristbands that were as fluffy as they were flagrant. He had long arms that twitched and twisted, covered in curly white hair that matched the kinky mop on top of his battered and crispy head. His nose had been broken several times. It was inflated and listed severely to the left. Thin lips worked and chewed at the tip of his chin, and his eyes moved back and forth across everything like a typewriter tube, clacking words across each item for later filing and retrieval. He writhed when he walked and left muddy footprints from thick-soled canvas shoes that were insensible, beaten, and slapped the ground as they peeled apart.
“Do you want me to kick him out?” asked Madalyn, nervous.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “He may be our best customer.”
The man stopped in the middle of the store, looking at the shelves of electronics and walls of display car stereo equipment, turning slowly as if hanging from a rope. I thought he might fall down. Instead he brought a quivering hand to his mouth and sucked it inside his clenching lips.
He bit it. He bit it hard, and then let it drop back to his side like a piece of spoiled fish. I think he even drew blood, but his hands were so pinched and mottled with other sores and abrasions that it was difficult to tell.
His eyes cleared and he disappeared down one aisle. I looked at Madalyn.
“I am going to find out what’s going on with that guy,” I said.
“He looks dangerous,” said Madalyn. Madalyn was eighteen, and had cut all of her hair off when she decided that she was a lesbian. Then she had dyed the ends white, pierced everything that she could pinch between her fingers, and tattooed the rest. She had demanded a job, and I had hired her, surprising us both. She worked five days a week after school, and she said that she was putting money aside for college. I respected that. Not everyone’s dream was to manage a suburban electronics store.
It was good. We got along. We had the same taste in women, I think.
“Nah, he looks DISEASED,” I said. “Not dangerous. Infectious; not threatening.”
“That’s part of the genius of a catching sickness,” said Madalyn. “You feel pitiful for the person suffering, so you try and help, and then you get it, too. The best thing you can do is to let a person die, wait awhile, and then burn the body. Otherwise, you are going to get somebody else sick, probably somebody you love who tries to help YOU, and so on, and so on.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m going to find out what his deal is.”
There was a grunt from the back of the store and the man returned. He was carrying a television in a chest-sized cardboard box. He staggered under the weight, but his elbows were locked and he had no trouble bringing the box forward to the counter. He wheezed a little bit, but didn’t choke or stumble.
“I want to buy this,” he said.
“That’s the third television today,” I said. “What’s going on, man? What’s the story?”
The man reached into his shorts and pulled out two hundred dollar bills. They were fresh and clean. Folded, not crumpled.
“I want to buy THIS,” he said again, dark stripes forming on his forehead.
“You have to tell me why,” I said pleasantly. “Or I’m not going to sell it to you.”
The man grunted and walked away, back to the aisles. I looked at Madalyn. She shrugged.
The man returned shortly, carrying a blender.
“Okay,” he said. “Then I want to buy this.”
“Look,” I said. “You can buy whatever you want. I just want to know WHY. You come in here two or three times a day and buy TVs and radios and blenders. You can understand how strange that is, can’t you?”
The man shuffled.
“Like,” he said. “This ain’t the only place I come, you know. I could go sommeair else, you know.”
“I don’t mind selling you whatever you want,” I said, smiling. “But the mystery of it is killing me.”
The man stared at his shoes.
“It’s no big secret, like,” he said. “I just need the money, so.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“You are SPENDING money,” said Madalyn. “Not making it.”
“I’m not buying stuff for me, you know,” said the man. “What would I do with all this stuff?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” I said, gritting my teeth.
“What’s your name?” asked Madalyn.
“Pat,” said the man.
“Okay,” said Pat.
“So who are you buying it for?” I asked.
Pat shut his eyes and put his hand back in his mouth.
“I don’t know her, like,” said Pat. “But she don’t know what things cost, and she don’t leave, like.”
“So you are working for somebody else, then,” I said. “I guess I have to believe you.”
Pat started waddling back and forth on his feet, his shoes slapping the ground and a line of drool slipping out of the corner of his mouth. He smelled like whiskey, but I don’t think he was tossed yet. He would be soon, if he was making some kind of percentage here.
At least he wasn’t spending his pension, or charity from some guilty relative. I felt better about that.
“I want to buy the television,” said Pat, pointing. “THIS. Are you going to sell it?”
“If you need help, you should get it,” I said. “Whoever this person is, she isn’t helping you. She just thinks she is.”
Pat started to bite his hand again, sinking his teeth hard into the webbing between thumb and forefinger. He bit deep, squeaking, the pupils in his wide eyes retracting to pinpricks. His orange wristband slid back along his arm and rested on his elbow. Blood followed in a thin trail, navigating the forest of his white curls like a snowmobile.
“Jesus Christ!” said Madalyn. “Get him out of here!”
“He’ll be back again in a few hours,” I said.
“Then do what he says,” said Madalyn, looking around the store at the other customers who had stopped browsing and were staring at us. “We’ll close early or something.”
I took Pat’s hundred dollar bills and rang him up for the television. He stopped biting and smiled. His eyes swam again. I set the change on the counter and he picked it up. I didn’t want to touch him.
“Okay,” said the man. “Thank you.”
He hefted the television, bowed his legs, and lurched squatly out of the store, stopping once again at the sliding doors to seize them with a hateful glare until they started to close, at which point he yelped and scooted onward. Then he was gone, out into the street, headed into the neighborhood behind the strip mall where we worked.
I pulled my nametag off of my shirt and set it down on the counter. I took my keys out of my pocket and handed them to Madalyn.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m going to follow him,” I said. “He can’t be going far. I’ve got to talk to this person who is buying these goods off of him. Perhaps we can arrange something that won’t fund a homeless man’s drinking habit. I’ve got to see what’s going on here.”
“Do you really want to get involved?” asked Madalyn.
“We are already involved,” I said. “I’ll be back in a minute. You are in charge. If you need change, call down to the pet store. They will send somebody over.”
“This is dumb,” said Madalyn.
“I have to keep selling him things because he pays,” I said. “But I’d rather not sell to him if I don’t have to. It’s simple.”
Madalyn groaned and I scampered outside, un-tucking my blue manager’s shirt and tossing it into the passenger’s seat of my car as I passed.
I brought the blender. It fit right under my arm.
I could see Pat struggling with the television on the corner at the crosswalk and I waited for the light to change before following.
Pat couldn’t look around behind him while he was carrying the television, so he was easy to follow. I tried to stay a block behind as he waddled into the tree lined streets of the housing settlement. It was late afternoon on a Sunday, so there were quite a number of men and women out working on their lawns and enjoying the day’s dying light. They didn’t notice me at all, but Pat was something of a spectacle. Kids stopped running through sprinklers to watch him pass, and old men and women on porches leaned against each other from their deck chairs to whisper.
I was frankly surprised that no one had called the cops on him yet, since he must go back and forth from electronics stores to his destination all day long. It was a wealthy neighborhood, and an old one. But there was something hypnotic and disarming about him. You could just tell that he was harmless.
I felt bad for him as he struggled with the bulky box, sweating and muttering – but he was tenacious. I marveled as he weaved his way through sidewalk cracks, yippy neighborhood dogs, and stray roller skates as if guided directly by the crooked, black finger of providence. There were easier ways to earn drinking money. Begging, for one. Something else was going on here.
After twenty minutes, Pat turned left into a secluded cul-de-sac. I stopped at the bottleneck and peered into the gloom of the houses, leaning against a wrought-iron mailbox and trying to blend in with the foliage on the shady side of the street.
A cul-de-sac was something like a stagnant pond when it came to neighborhoods. They always unsettled me. A terminus, the idea was that a cul-de-sac would promote community involvement by not having drive-by traffic. Maybe this was true fifty years ago, when people had barbecues and tried to seduce each other’s spouses out from under one another with fascinating, twisted schemes that left a whole generation with divorced parents. Nowadays, cul-de-sacs were desert islands. Dead places, where dark houses, like numb flesh, peered out from exile, jealously watching the vibrant and circulating places of a neighborhood; crouching, dead junkies in alleys, sprung jacks in boxes, suffocated vipers in mailboxes; the time to pounce past, waiting for oblivion, to be bulldozed, to be torn down and forgotten. Yes, I am a house! No, I don’t fucking want to be!
The house that Pat lurched toward with the television was a pink Gothic contortion, with heavy gables, three floors, year-round Christmas lights and brevets -- architectural tumors on the shoulders that poked out and smiled. The lawn was closely cropped and green. There were flowers in the beds, and despite the gloom, the house shined – radiating an electric crackle that I could feel in the hairs of my arm and in the fibers of my clothes against my skin. Even the grass seemed to be pulled toward the house, causing me to take an involuntary step away from my hiding place before I caught myself.
Pat limped down the walkway that led to the frosted-glass front door. He set the box down on the porch, where an overhang shielded pots filled with aspidistra and ficus. He leaned over backwards – popping out his sciatic nerve and clacking his teeth.
He rubbed his hands together, straightened his back, and then rang the door bell.
Then Pat got down on his knees beside the box and gently lowered his head until it was nearly resting on his chin. He put his hands down on the ground in front of him, as if he were injured or searching for a missing contact lens. It was impossible to tell whether he was kneeling because he was exhausted from his walk, or as a sign of deference.
After a few tense seconds, somebody came to the door and slowly opened it. Pat remained where he was on the ground. A pale, well-coiffed face peered out from the darkness of the house. It was a small woman – early forties, with shoulder-length blonde hair. She was wearing a red blouse, and had on a green skirt that drooped a few inches below her knees. No shoes, but she wore pearls, and earrings, and she was made-up as if she were about to head out to a formal dinner.
She walked slowly onto the porch. She looked at the television, and then walked back inside as if in a stupor. She returned with a pocketbook and pulled out a fat hunk of bills. She set them on the ground beside Pat (who had yet to move or even breathe), picked up the TV (using her knee to get a good hold), and then disappeared back into the house.
Pat waited, and then slowly stood up. He picked up the money, but didn’t count it. He looked up into the sky. He shook his head and punched his own ears. And then, muttering and writhing, he started walking toward me. I ducked behind a Range Rover and watched him pass. He didn’t notice me, and he went quietly on his way, heading the opposite direction from where he had come into the neighborhood. This meant that he was either done for the day, or that he was going to hit some other electronics store.
That was good at least. I didn’t want to worry Madalyn, or aggravate her while she was all alone at the shop with another visit from the deranged man.
He was gone, though. In fact, I’d never see him again.
After he was out of sight, I crept closer to the house. The first thing that caught my eye was the mailbox: it was a relatively normal stainless-steel job with a flap mouth, but it was completely overflowing. There was a crate underneath that was catching cascading letters. I bent down and picked up one of the pieces of mail – a manilla envelope that had bent corners and something like seventeen canceled stamps. “Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Fazio,” it said. But someone had gone through and struck out the “Mr.” and the “Thomas” with a black marker.
I looked at the box of mail.
Each piece was the same. Sometimes the marker was blue instead of black. Some of the mail was mottled with running ink, probably on account of being left in the rain.
She wouldn’t open the letters, but she would take the time to scratch out her husband’s name? That was dedication. There was a battle of wills going on here, but I suspected that the postman would give up soon. Perhaps Mrs. Fazio would just move the plastic trash barrel from the side of the house and wedge it permanently under the lid of the mailbox until the post office got the idea.
I walked to the door and raised my hand back to knock. I stopped myself. I reached for the doorbell, instead. I stopped myself again.
There was a buzzing coming from the door that I could feel in my chest. It seemed to percolate from underground – like mist coalescing from the loam of an evening swamp as the sun fell, and the temperature tanked.
I started to feel a bit nauseous. I knew, for a fact, that there was a colossal amount of consumer electronics piled in this house. The whole place could be wired.
I slowly backed away from the buzzing porch and walked over to the side of the house where the meter was. I took a look. All three dials were spinning around like biplane propellers. I could feel heat steaming from the metal tube. What was going on?
The hum was louder here, but there was something else filling my head with static. Voices. Loud voices, as if there were a party.
I walked over to the nearest window and tried to peek in between the curtains. The blinds were drawn, and, furthermore, a thick black curtain that appeared to be made of leather or burlap hung behind them. I didn’t see it at first. It was nearly invisible, tucked as it was behind the curtain and blinds, and blending in with the ink of the cul-de-sac’s densely grown hedges and sycamores.
Was I the first person to notice this shell? How long had this barricade against light and life been raised?
I noticed that the gate leading into the backyard was open. No dog. Still carrying the blender, I walked into the unexceptional backyard. There were rocks. Patio furniture. In one corner, grackles were perched, staring at me, on a stone fountain with an Ionic trunk. There was a rusting steel barbecue pit.
The kitchen window was left wide open. I walked up to it, compelled. The curtains drifted in and out, buffeted by the blowing and sucking of the houses mysterious drafts and currents. There was still a heavy black curtain, but it had been rolled up and tied with a red-twist tie – the kind you use to seal up a bag of bread or a cheap trash bag.
I stuck my head inside the window and set the blender down. The smell was overwhelming. I put my hand over my nose and tried again.
“Hello?” I said quietly. “Anybody home?”
For some reason, it felt less strange to do this than go in through the front. Maybe because that’s what I’d seen Pat do.
The voices were deafening.
“Anybody home?” I shouted again, louder.
The kitchen was a wreck, despite a beautiful oak table and rack of marble shelves that propped up expensive-looking bits of stained glass. There were plates piled on the floor, crusted with half-eaten convenience store lasagna whose tins lay nearby, and the corpses of macaroni and cheese dinners, which had turned orange and hard, glinting in the sunlight like baked paint. Florid trash (tampons, toilet paper, plastic tubs of frosting, tubes of toothpaste, pizza boxes, empty cans of vegetables), broken dishes, and clothes were knee high on the tile floor in places, and there were shifting constellations of cockroaches competing for space with jet trails of sugar ants along the walls.
I could hear rustling in the garbage. Rats? Squirrels? There was a clean crescent around the kitchen’s single swinging door. I assumed she was simply opening the door up, and tossing her trash inside as if the whole room were a dumpster. She had opened the window to do something about the smell, but it was an open invitation to the neighborhood’s opportunistic critters.
Experimentally, I put my hand on the window frame. It buzzed, but nothing else happened. I wasn’t blown backwards into the backyard like a beer can out of the back of a pickup-truck.
I lifted myself over the window-frame and entered the room, trying not to let any of the decaying trash cling to the cuffs of my pants.
“Hello?” I shouted. “It’s the man from the electronics store. I’d like to talk to you.”
There was no answer. Instead, the voices roared like the imprisoned thoughts of lost souls let loose to shriek through the thin eardrums of un-revenged tormentors. I walked to the kitchen door and pulled it open.
I crept down the darkness, through softly flickering strobe. Crazy lightning flashes lit up pictures that had fallen off of the walls. Wedding pictures that had been busted. Pictures of a happy couple sitting on a boat and drinking martinis. Friends and well-wishers mugging as a man held up a bowling ball and kissed it.
All broken – the glass swept to the sides so that you could walk and not cut your feet.
I saw at least two empty pill bottles. I picked one up, but I couldn’t read it in the stabbing light.
I walked into the room at the end of the hall.
Mrs. Fazio was there imprisoned in a nest of bright orange cords and remote controls. Naked. Crouching. Her hands over her ears. Still wearing her pearls and ear-rings.
Tears fell from her face in rivulets that looked like spit. Her head grazed the ground as she leaked. She looked as if she had been punched in the eyes, and by miracle, her blood was clear. Sopping. Falling.
Inside the room -- the house’s capacious first floor den – four hundred televisions were stacked to the ceiling along the walls. Extension cords ran down the stairs and from bedrooms, along the ceiling and looped around the chandelier. Blenders, toasters, massage devices, and stereos were all close inside the ring of televisions stacks, like gilded wainscoting.
The lights were off.
Nearly every television was turned on.
Voices screamed and squawked; pitched and hurled themselves at us.
“Tomorrow only, fresh peas, a dollar ninety nine on sale for.”
“He’s a moron. A moron and an imbecile. You can’t have those kind of tax cuts under a deficit with so much.”
“Oh, mercy. Oh mercy, me. The power and the glory. We live alone on the rocks that burn like.”
“Catch ‘em all while you can, available with purchase from now until.”
“One teaspoon of vinegar…don’t burn it…and then swirl and stir until.”
HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA
The laughter was the killer. The laughter was constant, and it shifted around the room as different quadrants of tube caught the competing bleats of different studio audiences. But it was constant, moving across the television sets like fireworks, or flashbulbs. The different pitches of laughter caught you up in a rolling boil and pushed you in the chest, making you stagger.
“Send your rag, and your love gift to 709 Cherry Tree, and Pastor.”
“Who sent you, Rico? Who pushes the buttons? Who makes the calls?”
“Better stay indoors this weekend. It looks like rain is in our future. But more on that after we.”
“Oh my god, look at that dress, who does she even think she is wearing what.”
And the faces that flickered. Faces filling each TV screen, coming and going, zipping and dashing, screaming and smiling, leering and nodding. There were explosions, and car crashes, and the crawl of statistics against shimmering blue foam.
“The state department released.”
“But I’m the one with the outboard.”
“Can’t you see that I’m trying.”
“The opportunity that only comes.”
“Foreign sanctions threaten.”
“Tha baby! I knew I forgot something. Well.”
HA HA HA HA HA HA HA
And the blenders buzzed, and the stereos blared music you couldn’t hear. It was worse than static because it wasn’t random. There were patterns: blocks of television crescendoed into commercial, and the volume peaked for products, and the lights flashed incrementally faster.
“Be the eleventh caller and.”
“Good, good, good, good vibrations.”
“Did you see that! What a play! And now Miami has possession, with only.”
My teeth rattled in my head and my stomach shrunk into a finger-sized curlicue under my ribs.
“Excuse me,” I said to no one but myself.
Mrs. Fazio raised her head anyway.
She started to scream. I could hear her, even though I shouldn’t have been able to in the fat electronic madness. Her eyes were blank, and she screamed – her face etched with black streaks and her lips smeared down her chin and into her nose. She held it, and I had to shut my eyes.
It held -- the noise of it -- until it broke. Her lips quivered. But instead of sobbing, the chest wracking stuff that filled lungs and tore up sweaters, there was only another scream, until she lowered her head and began to weep silently once more.
“Excuse me,” I said again, this time stepping into the room.
She saw me. She turned and stood up, shocked, stunned – but still not really there. I was just another face. Just another creature making words and trying to flash her my face over and over again until it was time to break.
“I don’t think this is good for you,” I said. There was no way she could hear. She was gone, blank, a mirror, a marble, a piece of plastic wrapped around a crystal goblet.
She walked toward me, slowly. I wanted to run, but I didn’t.
She stood there, in front of me, breathing, leaking. Instead of running, I took off my own clothes. Then, I got out a comb from my back pocket and made my hair as neat as I could.
I put my hand out. Her own hand twitched at her side, but didn’t move. I grabbed her, I hugged. I smooshed her up against me so tight that she had nowhere to go, and buried her ears in the sinews of my arms.
And then the sobs came, wet against my chest, rough against my hair. She howled, and then slept, as we slowly knelt to the floor and sat very still -- very still for hours.